April 30, 2012

Yang Jianli is founder and president of Initiatives for China. He served a five-year prison term in China, from 2002 to 2007, for attempting to observe labor unrest.

I have a suggestion for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao: Invite Chen Guangcheng to voice his concerns about your government and its treatment of him.

The blind Chinese civil rights attorney turned activist endured a year and a half of “soft detention” — constant surveillance under floodlights; a variety of threats; beatings, among them attacks on his wife — before escaping from his house in Dongshigu last weekend.

Chen’s escape was heroically assisted by our fellow activists He “Pearl” Peirong and Guo Yushan. Chen feigned inactivity by lying in bed for long periods. After evading the local goon squad surrounding his home, Chen was able to find He and Guo at a nearby meeting place and was driven to a safe house in Beijing. Alas, He and Guo were discovered and taken into custody. As of this writing, Chen’s whereabouts are unclear.

I and fellow Chinese human rights activists worry about not only Chen’s safety but the safety of all exposed to provincial police bullies. I hesitate to call them “police” as that suggests some legality to their behavior.

The out-of-control turf war in China between various parties claiming authority is a byproduct of the Beijing regime’s “stability maintenance” system. It is similar to battles in 1930s gangster movies — not procedures in any modern, civilized nation’s police and legal system. But this helps explain how a dozen or so local security brutes ended up pinning down, kicking and punching a blind man and his wife in their own home.

Chen’s case is the most notorious blot on the Communist Party’s heavily stained human rights record. In 2005, after Chen exposed horrific cases of forced abortions stemming from China’s one-child policy, he was placed under house arrest for six months. Chen had the temerity to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the victims of this “family planning” barbarism. That’s not something one does in a one-party state.

When his first house arrest ended in June 2006, Chen was formally arrested but was not even allowed legal representation in court. That August, Chen was sentenced to four years and three months in prison for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” That would be quite an achievement for many individuals, never mind one who has been sightless most of his life. After Chen served this sentence, China’s gangster “justice” system continued to punish him. He was placed under house arrest upon his release from prison.

For years, Wen has talked about the need for political reforms and portrayed himself as the man to carry that movement forward. After the fall of Bo Xilai and Bo’s neo-Maoist political/economic model, the premier once again hoisted the flag of “reform,” as though the ship he steers is really preparing a new course. At a news conference last month, Wen even invited critics to come as guests to Beijing, where, presumably, they would be given a chance to voice their concerns.

So, Wen should make clear that Chen Guangcheng has a standing invitation to come to the government’s compound and, in safety, detail the atrocities he spoke of in a video posted online after his escape.

A serious review of Chen’s case would show those inside and outside China whether there is much credence to Wen’s claims of charting a new course.

But it is not just China’s premier who should be put to the test. U.S. leaders must be highly specific with their Chinese counterparts when they raise human rights issues. Their Chinese interlocutors are all too practiced at shape-shifting the discussion toward general issues and away from the specific immorality of imprisoning at home without charge people such as Chen Guangcheng or Liu Xia, wife of the 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who himself remains in jail.

The fourth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue is to begin next week in Beijing. Important things are achieved at these discussions. In the 2007 talks, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson took up my case and pressed his Chinese counterparts to issue me a passport and allow me to return to the United States. After five years in prison and four months in a prison at large, I left China a “free man” without need of additional travel documentation. Next week’s talks could allow Chen Guangcheng to step out of hiding and fly off to freedom in the United States.

But for that to happen, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and/or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must raise Chen’s case and make that specific request.

To those who claim that this is not the appropriate forum, I would say that the genesis of the talks lies not in the enormous trade imbalance or the resultant current accounts deficit. No, it’s the China-China human rights deficit that created the need for these talks.

China’s export success is rooted in removing economic and political rights from the vast majority of Chinese citizens and sticking them with poor working conditions, ultra-low wages and the peonage that most Chinese workers experience. It vastly enriches an elite minority who control or are associated with state-sponsored entities. Simply put, it is the Chinese political system that creates the economic system and trade imbalances the dialogue seeks to redress.

That is the source of the export colossus U.S. companies and workers now engage on unequal terms. Repair the rights deficit, and you begin to repair the trade deficit, the trust deficit, the moral deficit and the political deficit. The question is: Will U.S. leaders raise the issue at the table next week and stand up for people like Chen Guangcheng?